At a time when some area neighborhoods are pushing for walking trails, an Albemarle County Eagle Scout has come under fire for promoting just that.
For his Eagle Scout project, Woodbrook resident Jon Schwaner planned and led the construction of a bench and bridge on county-owned land south of the Woodbrook neighborhood.
“I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors and I grew up having adventures in the woods around Woodbrook,” Schwaner said. “I thought that it was a waste to have such a beautiful area seen by so few, so I thought that making a bridge and bench would be a fantastic way to make the woods more accessible for people of all ages.”
However, some members of the Woodbrook neighborhood met the new structures’ presence with resistance. According to a post by Dan Gould on the Woodbrook Neighborhood Blog, “[w]hile a small majority of residents were in favor of the project, those residents whose properties are nearest the site were almost unanimously opposed.”
Gould’s online story already has 90 comments, a number of them from anonymous contributors. Many share their appreciation for the project, others express disappointment in the tenor of the community debate.
“I am very disappointed with the quality of many of the anonymous reader comments this story received,” Gould said. “A few of them stretched our acceptance criteria for comments to its very limits.”
Jon’s father, Carl, said the reaction wasn’t unexpected, given the area’s attraction to undesirable activity in the past. He said that there have been instances of minor crimes in recent years and noted how the neighborhood has changed since he purchased property.
“We’ve had people come into the neighborhood and break into cars,” Carl Schwaner said. “There are a lot of people who are concerned with their own safety.”
“When this neighborhood was built none of this stuff on Route 29 existed,” Carl Schwaner added, “so there has been a switch from a rural environment to an urban environment and some of these people have lived here since then.”
But Jon Schwaner doesn’t believe the new bench will increase unwanted activity.
“I am of the opinion that if the trail is used regularly, it may even decrease undesirable activity due to the chance that someone from the neighborhood may walk by at any moment,” the Eagle Scout said.
Albemarle County outdoor recreation supervisor Dan Mahon echoed this sentiment.
“When you bring legitimate users and management to the area, the undesirable users disappear,” Mahon said.
Mahon noted that some property owners fear what might happen when a new trail is built or opened up near their property.
“Early on, when I first took this position, I knew that community fear and concern for safety were going to be big issues,” Mahon said.
Mahon said his research indicates that trails improve property values and he noted this neighborhood’s potential for connecting to other trails in the county.
“When you look at the maps, it looks like an ideal spot for connectivity,” Mahon said. “There’s the potential to go from there all the way down to the [Rivanna] River.”
Woodbrook residents convinced Albemarle officials in 2010 not to connect their neighborhood, which surrounds Woodbrook Elementary School, with a trail to the new Arden Place development off East Rio Road.
“There seems to be a small vocal minority in our community that is against anything that would bring more people to our neighborhood,” the Eagle Scout said.
But not all Woodbrook residents are opposed to the new structures at the site of the Woodbrook Lagoons Enhancement Project, a county stream restoration and water quality initiative.
“I’m glad that this young man took the initiative … to do something,” Woodbrook resident Steve Wilson said. “I also applaud the county for the water quality project. I think those two things make it a more usable space for people who want to take a little hike in there.”
Some residents took issue with the process of gathering community input.
“I don’t think [the bridge and bench] matter to the people way on the other side of Woodbrook,” Eugene Powell said, “but it would have been nice [for the county] to check with the people around [the bench and bridge].”
The Woodbrook Community Association conducted a survey among its residents to gauge their support for the project. Gould said he based his assessment of the community’s support on how individual households voted, which was visible online.
County water resources manager Greg Harper said that while the neighborhood association had no authority to determine the outcome of Jon Schwaner’s project because of its location on county land, he supported gathering community input.
“As ‘stewards’ of the site … we wanted any project to have general community support,” Harper told Charlottesville Tomorrow in an email, “not because there are any formal approval or hearing requirements (there are none) but rather because we felt that it was only fair that the community get to weigh in — in some capacity — on what was done on nearby public property.”
Carl Schwaner said that communication between himself and the neighborhood association broke down last summer. The Eagle Scout project had a deadline and he said the neighborhood representatives were unresponsive.
Neighborhood president Susan Reed declined to comment for this story.
Despite the controversy, Jon Schwaner says he’ll continue to do community service in the future.
“This experience hasn’t lessened my view of our community, because it proves that they care about the community, which I think is incredibly important,” he said. “Besides, it seems to me that all great steps attract dissension, [so] maybe the heated argument is a good sign.”